The Appeal of Dogma

Why has dogmatic activism caught on in the social justice movement? Why does any dogma?

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In all my talking and writing about social justice dogma, I don’t give a lot of attention to “Why dogma?” I want to address that now.

Some of what I’m about to say might be easily misread as sarcasm, irony, or even condescension. Let me say right now that this is none of that.

I genuinely believe that dogma has a lot of appeal, and I sympathize with people who support and abide by the social justice dogma. I get it. I really do.

Before I explain more, like every middle school kid writing their first big essay, let’s start with the definition of the subject:

a dogma is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.

That’s the definition that I based my definition of social justice dogma on.

Now, what’s so great about that? A lot of things!

1. Dogma is easy.

Do this, don’t do that. That’s wrong, this is right. Don’t challenge authority, just go through these motions. A yellow brick road to being a good person awaits you, so long as you don’t question the wizard.

How great is that?! There are so many moments in my life when I wish things were made that simple, but are instead messy and complicated and grey and uncertain.

And when we’re talking about social justice, easy is hard to come by. Social justice is rife with cognitive complexity, ambiguity, relativism, and lots of other fancy ways to say “tricky.” The simplicity offered by dogma can feel like a massive relief.

2. Dogma is reassuring.

Building on the ease, believing in and abiding by a dogma is also reassuring. You trust that the authority who has laid down these rules has things figured out, and knows what they’re talking about.

Even when the rules aren’t easy to follow, or you feel nervous that you might be doing things wrong, you can find comfort in the rules themselves, the plan.

Remember when you were a kid and you thought adults in your life knew what they were doing, had things figured out, and weren’t totally winging it? Dogma presents itself in a similar way: “Here are all the answers, the correct ways to be, and trust us – we’re an expert.”

So many of us aren’t even sure that the goals of social justice are accomplishable, and we’d often be at a loss for what steps we can take toward that goal – against the tide of oppression and malaise and indifference. We know we need to do something, but it’s hard to know the thing you’re doing is the right something.

But a dogma says, “Worry not. This is the path.”

3. Dogma is wrapped around good things.

For more and more people that I talk to, particularly those who skew younger, there is no distinction between “social justice advocacy” and “social justice dogma.” The dogma is all they know.

When someone is introduced to the idea of social justice via dogmatic actions, attitudes, and beliefs, all the good parts of social justice (e.g., the altruism, compassion, solidarity, healing) are inexorably entwined with dogma.

The same could go for dogma in the religious sense, where someone might view having a relationship with their god or getting into some happy afterlife as being wrapped up in the dogma surrounding it.

We don’t often connect “dogma” to things people don’t care about, dislike, or are apathetic about. There’s no “Bureau of Motor Vehicles Dogma.”

If you think the only way to access a thing you care about is through dogma, then dogma it is.

4. Dogma creates intense bonds.

In her book “Braving the Wilderness,” Brené Brown writes about the idea of “common enemy intimacy”:

“I don’t really know you, nor am I invested in our relationship, but I do like that we hate the same people and have contempt for the same ideas.”

Dogmatic belief systems are a guaranteed ticket to common enemy intimacy. Brené goes on to explain that “If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge outrage and pain.”

The social justice dogma has no shortage of that: intense, immediately-gratifying bonds formed by the shared hatred of the other.

And there’s another way that dogma can create bonds, not just amongst its adherents, but between them and the belief system itself.

If you’ve never heard the phrase “trauma bonding,” this is going to likely seem more intense than I mean it to.

In the same way that someone can form an intense relationship with someone who is abusive to them – not in spite of the abuse, but because of it – the enforcement of dogma can be a catalyst to strong relationships.

In social justice spaces, people see what happens when others don’t toe the line of dogma. And many people aren’t just bystanders, but actively playing a role in enforcing the dogma. They join in on the correcting, the punishing.

When people aren’t currently being dragged, there’s a sense of fear that one might be. You’re just one misstep, one problematic phrase, away from being next. From becoming the common enemy of the members of your own group.

If you stick around, seeing that happen dozens of times, living with the background noise of fear, you make sense of your continued involvement by saying, “This must be important. These people are important to me. Otherwise why would I be here?”

We don’t think of it as bad. We think of it necessary. And powerful. And meaningful. And every time this happens our relationships deepen a little more.

Dogmas are [hu]man’s best friend.

There’s more to the list, but dogma being easy, reassuring, connected to things we love, and a catalyst for strong relationships is plenty of carrot. Granted, the stick is always hovering close behind.

It’s no surprise that lot of affinity groups give way to dogma. And it wouldn’t be helpful, or honest, for us to ignore this appeal. Indeed, if we’re ever to be successful in moving beyond dogma in activism, we need to be able to create alternatives that are just as appealing.

In case it’s not obvious: I’m not advocating for dogma here. In her writing on common enemy intimacy, Brené continues the above passage as follows (emphasis mine):

“It is not, however, fuel for real connection. It’s fuel that runs hot, burns fast, and leaves a trail of polluted emotion.”

In the end, despite their appeals, dogmatic belief systems provide more problems than solutions. I’ll be making that case, and suggesting alternative ways we can organize (around) our beliefs, throughout this book.

And maybe we can leave out the stick.

👋 Hey! This is part of a book that I (publicly!) wrote all throughout January about Social Justice, Minus Dogma. Do you want to join the list to get an email when it's coming out?

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